Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 10, 2015
Recently, I watched the Brian De Palma movie, “The Untouchables” on DVD again. It’s a movie that plays well years after its release and stars Kevin Costner and Sean Connery among other well-known names today. In the movie, there’s one scene where Eliot Ness sends his young daughter and pregnant wife away for safety’s sake. Angered at having his family’s safety threatened by Frank Nitti on behalf of Al Capone, Eliot Ness tells Malone that he wants to take the battle to Capone. Malone replies:
Well, then, a Merry Christmas. We’ve got some great news. A huge international shipment’s coming. We’ve got the time, the place and the whole shebang.
But what exactly is a shebang, and what does it mean in today’s lexicon? Informally speaking, the word shebang refers to the structure of something such as an organization or a situation or a project. It generally implies the sum total as opposed to the parts that make up the whole.
Of course, techno-geeks will tell you that a shebang is a character script sequence that begins with the number sign and an exclamation mark and is favored by Unix-type operating systems. However, the word is older than computer science.
It was in the July 29, 1890 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail newspaper that a two-volume book by the famous and experience African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (28 January 1841 – 10 May 1904) whose reputation, it was claimed in the newspaper, was well-known throughout the world.
SIDE NOTE: Sir Henry Morton Stanley is identified as the person who uttered the immortal — and oft quoted and misquoted — question, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” upon finding the lost missionary and explorer David Livingstone in the supposed deepest, darkest Africa.
The book was all about the Emin Relief Expedition to Africa that began in 1887 and continued into 1888.
Lieutenant Stairs, Mr. Jephson, and myself were out at the extreme west end of the spur enjoying the splendid view, admiring the scenery, and wondering when such a beautiful land would become the homestead of civilized settlers. Stairs thought that it resembled New Zealand, and said that he would not mind having a ranche here. He actually went so far as to locate it, and pointed out the most desirable spot. “On that little hill I will build my house” — “Shebang” he called it. I wonder if that is a New Zealand term for a villa.
During the American Civil War, a shebang was understood to mean “a hut or shed, one’s living quarters.” In short, it was a word that referred to a temporary shelter for soldiers in the field. How do we know this?
The American Civil War was famous for its slang of uncertain origin, and shebang is among those words of uncertain origin in many respects. But make no doubt about it, many consider the word an Americanism by nearly every standard. Even the book “Americanisms: The English of the New World” compiled by Maximillian Schele De Vere and published by Charles Scribner & Co. and published in 1872 included the word.
Shebang used even yet by students of Yale College, and elsewhere to designate their rooms, or a theatrical or other performance in a public hall, has its origin probably in a corruption of the French cabane, a hut, familiar to the troops from Louisiana, and constantly used in the Confederate camp for the simple huts, which they built with such alacrity and skill for their winter quarters. The constant intercourse between the outposts soon made the term familiar to the Federal army also.
In the annual report from the Office of the Nez Percé Indian Agency by Charles Hutchins, U.S. Indian Agent for Washington Territory on June 30, 1862 to the Secretary of the Interior, the author made use of the word shebang.
Along all the roads on the reservation to all the mines, at the crossing of every stream or fresh-water spring, and near the principal Indian villages, an inn or “shebang” is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.
The term is found in many government documents from the United States House of Representatives to the Adjutant General’s Office, from the United States Congress to the Bureau of Military Statistics, and beyond.
Some have speculated that there might be a connection between shebang and the Irish word shebeen — spelled sibín — while others discount it because “bang” and “been” can scarcely be mistaken for each other. However, a shebeen house in Ireland was one that usually sold unlicensed spirits, and were referred to as resorts of bad characters. In other words, a shebeen in Ireland didn’t sound to be much different than the shebang spoken of in the report from the Office of the Nez Percé Indian Agency in Washington state.
Another important historical fact to remember is this: While many may remember the infamous Irish Brigade of the North, the more than 40,000 Irish who fought on the side of the South during the American Civil War seem to have been overlooked and forgotten. The Irish were, in fact, the largest immigrant group fighting on the side of the South — a feat that was not returned by the Irish fighting on the side of the North. What’s more, there were many Irish-born and first-generation Irish officers that moved their way up the Confederate Army ladder.
In other words, the likelihood that the word shebang was originally shebeen is very good considering its roots as slang during the American Civil War years. When coupled with the fact that at about the same time, the word shebang also existed in the English spoken in New Zealand — a country that also saw a great deal of Irish immigrants throughout the 1800s — which only strengthens the probably connection between the two words.
That being said, however, the word shebang doesn’t seem to appear in print prior to the American Civil War although it was very obviously used among the general population given that the word was used by government officials as from the onset of the American Civil War. Because of this, Idiomation pegs the word shebang to the mid-1800s.